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It may just be a matter of acquiring new skills, John observed. People first learn to meditate while sitting, then while walking. Eventually they learn to cultivate the mind of awareness while talking or preparing a meal. Why should websurfing be any different?
At the same time, he said, “The Zen take would be that there isn’t a ‘right way’ to be online. There’s a kind of freedom deeper than the right way—an awareness that’s always happening while all this other stuff is going on. I woke up with a splitting headache the other night, but this awareness knows it wasn’t really a problem. It’s calm and having a good time, noticing, ‘He’s got a headache,’ or, ‘He’s online now and he thinks his attention is scattered.’ The relationship between this foreground creature that you think you are and this vast background is the question. When there’s a relationship, most people feel their experience is more nourishing.”
In the 1980s, when few people outside the Pentagon and university computer science departments were even aware of the internet, Gary Snyder wrote a poem called “Why I Take Good Care of My Macintosh Computer.” The choice of subject may have startled some of Snyder’s fans, who think of him primarily as a spokesperson for the timeless values of wilderness and tribe—one of Thoreau’s heirs, perhaps even a bit of a Luddite.
But Snyder has no inherent distrust of technology. Like any skilled craftsman, he’s eager to praise his tools. His books contain odes to axe handles, pickup trucks, and hydraulic backhoes as well as mountains, rivers, and coyotes. After paying tribute to his Mac as if it were a totemic animal (“it broods under its hood like a perched falcon”), Gary offers gratitude to his elegant machine for reminding him of important truths:
Because whole worlds of writing can be
boldly laid out
and then highlighted, & vanished in a
“delete” so it teaches
of impermanence and pain
The poet’s job, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844, is to reclaim scattered pieces of the sacred whole by re-attaching “even artificial things and violations of nature, to nature, by a deeper insight.” This “deeper insight” could be described as simply paying attention to elements of experience that non-poets usually find unworthy of notice. “Readers of poetry see the factory-village, and the railway, and fancy that the poetry of the landscape is broken up by these, for these works of art are not yet consecrated in their readings,” he explained. “But the poet sees them fall within the great Order not less than the beehive, or the spider’s geometrical web.”
Our job as mindful citizens of this planet is not so different. By paying attention, we rescue orphaned elements of human experience and discover richness in them. The “vast background” described by John Tarrant is equally at work in a spider web and the worldwide web. As members of social networks, our friends’ status updates are constantly bringing us news of the universe: births, deaths, celebrations, sorrows, and transitions, as well as signs of the inevitable approach of old age and death.
Being open to this news without feeling overwhelmed and anxious takes practice, and can also require making choices. Psychologist and Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein enjoys email and the web, but she declines invitations to high-traffic networks like Facebook and LinkedIn. “I know they’re valuable for many people,” she says. “I’m just certain I would not thrive with more contacts than I already have.”
Mindfulness of speech also applies to words online. It’s so easy to fire off a testy reply or detonate a self-righteous blast in the comments section of a blog. After exchanging more than 300,000 emails, I’ve learned to be thankful for the petulant messages I never sent, the bristling reactions I zapped into the void. When I feel hot anger quickening my fingers at the keys, I try to take a mindful breath (or ten), or even a walk around the block. If my response is so important, it will still seem so when I sit back down at my computer. Not every reactive blip needs to be broadcast to the world.
Strategic use of inspirational reminders can help. Some people install software that chimes at random intervals in the course of a day, prompting them to take a conscious breath. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a poem to recite silently before logging on. When I visited the Boorsteins at home in Sonoma County two years ago, I noticed a square of paper taped to the edge of Sylvia’s monitor with a quote from Cala, one of the first women to take vows in Buddha’s order: I, a nun, trained and self-composed, established mindfulness and entered peace like an arrow. I recently asked Sylvia if she still relies on these dharmic Post-Its. “I have a laptop now, so there’s no space for them,” she replied. “But if there was, I would use a phrase that my friend Susan puts at the end of all her emails: Stay amazed.”
Staying amazed and compassionate, even in the face of imminent death, is a worthy goal in any tradition. As the pain and therapeutic demands of Damian’s illness increased, he still found time to comfort another member of our online tribe whose father had been diagnosed with cancer. Overjoyed at being the father of a four-year-old girl, Damian wrote not long before he died, “I’m renewed every time I come home and see her running down the hallway shouting out ‘DAADDY!’ I’m reborn every time I think of her. I am the luckiest guy in the world.”
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of the Shambhala Sun.
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